Don't say you weren't warned >:-P
Ich’s parent had told him in no uncertain terms not to go watch the flare, but of course he went.
All the other children went too, just as their parents had gone when they were young and their parents had told them not to go. Even the parents knew perfectly well they’d go to watch; the warning was just a formality, as everyone knew well enough.
For all that, though, Ich couldn’t just go in front of his parent without being stopped, of course, and it wasn’t so easy to sneak off without being detected. So, increasingly impatiently, he eddied back and forth, riding the plasma waves, waiting for a chance.
It came at last, a vortex forming which pushed him away from his parent long enough for him to move off, flowing along the rivers of plasma. He spread himself as thin as he could, letting the current take him along, its blazing energy flooding through his substance so that he felt almost as though he were part of the river itself.
This was something he loved doing, and nobody – not even his parent – had ever forbidden him. When he was spread thin like this, he tasted the magnetic fluxes, felt himself ride on each little bump and ripple of the flow, and felt himself flooded with the warmth from below, of which he could never have quite enough. At times like this he felt as though he was listening to music, a beat like a slow-throbbing heart and the high notes of particles as they rustled and squeaked and flung themselves away forever.
Once or twice he’d spoken about this. The first time he’d told his parent, who had listened almost sympathetically.
“I won’t say you’re imagining it,” she’d replied at last. “But it’s not real, or everyone would be hearing it. Don’t you think so?”
Ich hadn’t replied, but had thought about it, and later told a few of his friends.
They’d all laughed at him. “Music in the energy flows!” they’d scoffed. “Ich is crazy! He must have got too close to a flare and it cooled him off.”
All this was terribly unfair, of course, but Ich realised that it would be pointless to speak of it again until he was old and large enough to be taken seriously. “Besides,” he’d muttered fiercely to himself, “even if I am imagining it, it’s beautiful and rare, and someday I’ll make music just like that and everyone will listen.”
So as he floated along the plasma river towards where the flare was building, he listened to the music even as the light and warmth flooded his substance and the magnetic fields danced and wavered around and through him, filling him with delight. Several times he sensed other children around him, all headed in the same direction, but he ignored them all, just as they ignored him. Everyone was eager to see the flare, and nobody wanted to waste time talking.
Until, that is, the fringe of Ich’s substance brushed that of Gorak’s. Gorak was one of the few others who had never laughed at Ich when he’d talked about the music. She also, like him, preferred to spread herself out almost to insubstantiality and ride the plasma rivers rather than swim through them like titanic whales like almost everyone did. Now she brushed his side with hers and sent her thoughts to him in a stream of charged particles.
“So you managed to get away? I wasn’t sure if you would.”
“Why not?” If any of the others had said something similar, Ich would have become defensive. But Gorak had never been anything but open with him. “I’m as eager to see the flare as anyone else.”
“It’s your parent,” Gorak replied a little diffidently. “She’s always a little fierce about flares, isn’t she? I heard once she’d come too close to one.”
“That’s strange,” Ich told her. “I’ve never heard anything of the kind. She never told me about it.”
“Maybe my parent was wrong,” Gorak said. “He told me about her. But even he said to be careful about the flare, and on no account to get too close.”
“We can’t get too close anyway,” Ich replied moodily. “The scientists will all be gathered around it to watch.”
“Are we too late?” Gorak asked anxiously. “I hope we aren’t too late.”
“Of course we aren’t,” Ich reassured her. “Can’t you feel it?”
And they could, deep below, and still far ahead, the surging forces building and building.
“We’ll be well in time,” Ich said. “And if necessary we can always swim.”
The other children were all swimming, so that by the time Ich and Gorak arrived, there was already a large crowd, and they were right at the back. It wouldn’t matter, though, because the flare would be more than big enough for everyone to see.
“Have you ever seen a flare before?” Gorak asked Ich.
“Yes, once, but it was from a long way off and my parent was with me.”
“And what did she say?”
“That the flare was very dangerous, and if we got too close nobody would find us, ever again.”
“That’s what everyone says, isn’t it?” Gorak asked. “Why do you suppose they say that?”
“My parent said that the flares are throwing all the poison in the plasma away, and that if you get too close you’re thrown away with the poison.”
“But where would you throw it to?” Gorak flung an energy pattern to indicate the glowing sky above them. “What’s there to throw anything at?”
Ich was about to invent something to say when another someone spoke from behind them.
“Excuse me, my friends.” It was a slightly older voice, not one of the other children. “I couldn’t help overhearing. So you’re interested in flares? I mean,” the stranger added hastily, “you’re interested as more than mere spectators, aren’t you?”
“Well, yes,” Ich said uncertainly. “I’m not sure who...”
“I’m Nebbi,” the stranger replied. “I’m a trainee scientist, so I’m here, but...” Her voice was aggrieved. “I’ve been asked to stay away and let the top people take their measurements and readings. So I’m just hanging around. Anyway,” she repeated, “so you’re interested in flares? But you don’t seem to know anything much about them.”
“So what are they?”Gorak asked.
“Before I answer that,” Nebbi said, “let me ask you both a question. What do you know about our world?”
Ich and Gorak exchanged ion streams of confusion. “Our world?” Ich responded uncertainly. “It’s just the...world.”
“And what is it?” Nebbi asked, and waited expectantly. Neither of the children said anything.
“Oh well,” the trainee scientist continued at last. “You see, all this we’re living on – it’s just the outer skin of a ball of incandescent gas.”
Ich and Gorak expressed wordless surprise.
“Yes,” Nebbi said, warming to her theme. “It’s a ball of gas, which consumes itself to provide heat and light and magnetic energy and everything else that keeps us alive.”
“How can it be a ball of gas?” Gorak protested. “Where would it stay?”
“It isn’t staying anywhere,” Nebbi said. She extruded photon streams that painted a picture in their substances. “See here, how it moves through an immense emptiness, in which there are many other balls of gas like ours. We call them stars.”
“I don’t understand,” Gorak said. “How did we come to live on a ball of gas?”
“We didn’t come to live on it.” Nebbi paused. “We – that means you and I as well – are just accumulations of this gas which have developed consciousness.”
“But –“ Ich said. “But...”
“No,” Nebbi said. “I don’t know how we developed it, or when. It’s not my branch of science, but if you want I’ll introduce you to people who know about all that. Anyway, as I just told you, the world is a star, and it’s moving through a void filled with other stars.”
“And those other stars have...people like us on them?”
“Who knows?” Nebbi said. “Some of us think that since we exist, all stars of this type should have creatures like us living on them. Others say that it’s such a fantastically small chance that we developed life and consciousness that it’s unlikely in the extreme that it could have developed anywhere else. The answer is that we simply don’t know.”
“And that’s all there is – this void, and stars?” Ich asked.
“No,” Nebbi replied reluctantly. “There are other things, small balls of much denser material, so dense that we can hardly imagine it. But these aren’t important. Why, some of them are revolving around this star right now, and have been for ages, and yet they don’t affect us at all.”
“Maybe those dense balls have people on them?” Ich ventured. “Maybe they –“
“No,” Nebbi responded firmly. “There’s no chance of that. They’re far too cold. All our scientists agree on that point.”
Ich heaved a disappointed sigh of ion streams. “Well, I was hoping,” he muttered.
But Gorak had been thinking of something else. “You said that this ball of gas we’re living on...this star...it’s consuming itself to give us heat and light. So when it’s all done consuming itself, what happens?”
Nebbi was silent for a while. “When that happens...” Then she interrupted herself with relief. “Here comes the flare now,” she said. “Can you feel it?”
Of course the children could. The flare was pushing up from below, an unstoppable force from the heart of the star, hurling itself towards the incandescent sky. It rose, a ball of fire, breaking apart the horizon, ripping it apart in a welter of flame and radiation. Now it was a pillar, a spear, as though flung by an angry god.
Neither Ich nor Gorak could hear each other in the torrent of noise that came from the assembled crowd. They could hardly make out their own thoughts.
And still the flare rose, and rose. Now it was a tree, an immense rippling trunk of light and fire, growing up from the star. The top split away branches and twigs and tendrils, which arched out far overhead, spreading out over the crowd and filling the spectrum with static. It was white-hot in the centre, cooling off to yellow and a dull red at the margins, and still it grew. Now the top could no longer even be seen, merging into the blazing sky.
The flood of energies diminished slightly. Ich became aware of an urgent message coming from Nebbi. “Get ready,” she was saying. “Here it comes!”
“What?” Before he could say anything more, he felt it, the shock wave of the colossal eruption, racing along the plasma. It lifted him up, pushed him to one side, and his substance and Gorak’s almost merged for a moment. The other children, their bodies still heavy and dense, were thrown backwards and scattered, some of them emitting ion streams of alarm. They were in no danger, of course, the shock wave bearing them away from the flare. But the crowd was suddenly gone.
Only Nebbi remained with Ich and Gorak. “That is the flare,” she said quietly. “It’s the substance of the star itself, flung up and out into the void by magnetic forces. Do you understand now?”
Ich and Gorak said nothing. They watched the flare as though mesmerised. It occupied a quarter of the horizon now, twisting and turning, becoming ragged at the edges as it faded into the sky.
“I should be going soon,” Nebbi’s thought touched them. “I’ll be expecting you two to contact me as soon as you decide you want to know more.”
“How do you know we’ll want to know more?” Ich asked.
“Of course you want to know more,” Nebbi said. “You’ll be trainee scientists yourselves, I’ll bet anything you want on that. You see,” she added gently, “I was just like you myself.”
For a long time after she had gone, Ich and Gorak did not speak. It was the former who broke the silence.
“Imagine,” he said, “if we could somehow ride on top of a flare like that. We’d be able to float off into the void she was talking about.”
“And then what? Can you imagine how desperately cold it must be up there? We’d freeze in a moment.”
“We might be able to visit those other places she was talking about – those balls of rock.” Ich paused uncertainly. “I still wonder if there are people of some kind on them. Why not?”
“She said it was too cold.”
“She said! She doesn’t know. She just thinks it’s too cold. Just imagine, there might be a Gorak and an Ich there, they’d look at this star and say it’s too hot for anyone to live here. But we wouldn’t stop existing just because of that, would we?”
“Cold...” Gorak hesitated. “Do you remember when I asked about what happens when the star runs out of gas to consume? Nebbi didn’t say anything.”
“Maybe she doesn’t know. Or maybe she doesn’t want to say. It wouldn’t be for a good while, anyway. And maybe if we become scientists we can find out more about it.”
“You’re right. Hey, Ich?”
“What was that music thing you were talking about once? Could you tell me about it again?”
“You’re not going to laugh at me, are you?”
“I’m not going to laugh at you, Ich. I’ll never laugh at you for anything.”
“Well, if you spread yourself out very thin, like me, and try to feel...”
Far away, white fading to red, twisting and coiling, the flare was still rising.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014